Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Machu Picchu, Peru

The Machu Picchu Historical Sanctuary, as the ruins are formally known, was declared by UNESCO as a World Cultural and Natural Heritage Site in 1983. Subsequently it has been named as one of the seven wonders of the modern world and is a world renowned archaeological site. Having asked at the lodge, we had been told that the best place to watch the sun rise was at an area known as the guardhouse and knowing we were going to be exploring the ruins for the whole day, we arranged wakeup calls for 5 am so we will not be rushed. We had also been told that the park opens at 6am, sun rise is around 6:45 and it is a 25 minute hike to the guardhouse. Okey, dokey! Our plan is to hike up to watch the sun rise, then return to the lodge for breakfast and to checkout and then reenter the park in time for Tom, Marcela and Mariano to hike Huayna Picchu at 10 am. After a fortifying cup of coffee, we line up to enter through the main gate. It seems as though, of the 2,000 tickets issued for park admittance, a good number have the same idea we do for seeing the rising sun and everyone had the same reaction on passing through the entrance and reaching the stone passage that forms the entry into Machu Picchu itself. Nothing, not a photo, not a description in a brochure, not seeing other Incan ruins, quite prepares you for the awesome feeling of seeing the citadel for the first time It appears as though the city is molded into the mountains, blending itself into the hillside creating a stone walled paradise. It is magnificent. Situated at 7,200 feet above sea level and nestled on a small hilltop in the Andes, the majestic city soars above the Urubamba Valley below. After taking a few (dozen) photographs, we head up the stone steps that gains access to the Guard House. As the name suggests, this is at the top of a hill overlooking the ruins past the Funerary Rock Hut which it is believed to be the place where the Incan royalty were mummified and on to the vantage point offering a dramatic view of the whole complex. The hike up the long flights of twisting, rigid stone stairs that lead to the viewpoint is arduous but well worth the effort. Considered to be one of the most photogenic spots at Machu Picchu, we are rewarded by some spectacular views that will not soon be forgotten. With the sun rising over the Andes which seem to encapsulate us on all side and slowly clearing the swirling mist from nearby mountain peaks, the sheer isolation of the area is almost overwhelming. Time feels suspended and everything else ceases to exist as my gaze travels over the citadel comprising of temples, buildings and terraces that at one time was thought to be home to about 1,200 people. Machu Picchu was unknown until its relatively recent discovery in 1911 when archaeologist, Hiram Bingham stumbled upon it when exploring in the area. Even after Bingham’s discovery, the city remained inaccessible until the 1940’s when an expedition working at the site discovered the now famous Inca Trail which cuts through the mountains and leads from the citadel to the Sacred Valley. Due to its isolation from the rest of Peru, living in the area full time would require traveling great distances just to reach the nearest village and because of this reason it is theorized that this was possibly a retreat for the Incan rulers. Tom breaks through my reverie and reminds me that we need to get back for breakfast and to check out as they have a mountain to climb at 10 o’clock. Yes, a mountain. Huayna Picchu to be exact. On every picture of Machu Picchu, Huayna Picchu is that big peak behind the citadel to the right and since it is at the farthest end of the park, we will need to keep moving. We eat breakfast and say farewell to the Sanctuary Lodge. They assure us not to worry about our luggage and they will be sure it gets taken into town to the Inkaterra, where we will be staying tonight. It is then back through the stone entryway, gaze once more over the citadel and then make our way along the terraces, past the main plaza to the meeting place for the Huayna Picchu excursion. This involves more climbing up and down countless stone stairways and it is difficult for me to stay concentrated on moving given the views we have. But I know that once they leave for the climb I am going to have plenty of time to walk and take photographs. Like I have mentioned, Machu Picchu only issues tickets for 2,000 visitors per day but Huayna Picchu only allow 200 per day, making these tickets much sought after. Now, in Lonely Planet and other guide books, Huayna Picchu is listed as a moderate climb, steep but not difficult which should take about two hours round trip. There is no recommendations other than don’t try it if you have vertigo problems, which is the only reason I am not going. As we make plans to meet up later, they eye the mountain. It is very tall and very steep. “I think it might take us three hours there and back, not two”, Marcela observed. So we agree to meet at one o’clock either here at the base or at one of the huts that have been restored with thatched roofs and benches. Although Machu Picchu is huge, its layout is surprisingly straightforward and there was no question that we would miss be able to miss one another. I wish them luck, ask Tom to take lots of photos and I leave them to do my own exploring. I first head back to the main plaza. The Central Plaza of Machu Picchu is surrounded by roofless stone structures and steep terraces and is like a green oasis amid the Inca stone buildings. At the lower end is a labyrinth of cells, passageways and niches extending above and below ground and I make my way down narrow, steep steps to the main attraction in this part of the ruins known as the “Prison Sector”.. The Temple of the Condor which has a carving of the head of a condor above a rock pile is a breathtaking example of Inca stonemasonry. A natural rock formation that the Inca skillfully shaped into the outspread wings of a condor in flight. On the floor of the temple is a rock carved in the shape of the condor's head and neck feathers, completing the figure of a three-dimensional bird. Historians speculate that the head of the condor was used as a sacrificial altar and under the temple is a small cave that when first discovered contained a mummy. Leaving this sector, I make my way through the other not-to-be-missed areas of the citadel. Temple of the Three Windows, Group of the Three Doorways, Temple of the Sun and Intiwatana, the observatory before finding my path back to the Guard House. Wandering around, up, down and through the citadel, it is easy for me to appreciate the superb craftsmanship of the Inca, masonry with its large stone blocks polished smooth and joined perfectly. They used no mortar to hold their walls in place; relying instead on precisely cut stones, geometry, and exacting joints in the corners and foundations. All their structures, like Machu Picchu can withstand time and even multiple earthquakes without damage. It is almost one o’clock. I have roamed the city and climbed countless stone steps. Thankfully, I find a bench at one of the huts to wait for the others to arrive from their climb. My view looks out over the terraces to Intiwatana and back to the main square. A small herd of llamas and alpacas graze on the grass and seem to be doing a good job keeping it efficiently mowed. Up to my left I can also see the start of the Inca Trail, a dirt footpath winding up through the Andes and as I gaze across the terraces, I fall back into my reverie from this morning and the history of Machu Picchu. In Incan times any person entering to Cuzco and the Sacred Valley was greeted with the phrase “Ama sua, ama quella, ama lulla” – “Don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t be lazy”, which sums up what was important to this co-operative society. Everyone in the Incan community with the exceptions of priests and royalty was required to work on projects like roads, irrigation ditches, aqueducts and buildings. The philosophy being, that if all participated they would all take care of the finished product. Built between 1438 and 1493, the construction of this amazing city was laid out according to a very rigorous plan and comprises one of the most spectacular creations of the Inca Empire. Separated into three areas - agricultural, urban, and religious - the structures are arranged so that the function of the buildings matches the form of their surroundings. The lower areas contain buildings occupied by the Inca themselves, agricultural terracing and aqueducts take advantage of the natural slopes and the most important religious areas are located at the crest of the hill, overlooking the lush Urubamba Valley. Thousands of stone steps connect everything, steps that at the end of the day will leave your quadriceps throbbing and your feet aching, no matter how many step classes you’ve taken! But where are the others? It is now 2 o’clock and I am starting to get concerned. Only there is another lady sitting who is also waiting for her family to return from the climb. They arrive first and tell me yes, they have seen Tom, Marcela and Mariano on the trail and yes, it was much more difficult than anticipated. They leave to get lunch and finally I see my group in the distance, walking very slowly. The first thing they said was “that was horrendous”, the second was “we are hungry”. Over lunch they told me about it. Steep, stone steps lead the way to the top of the peak, not straight up but up and down over ridges: a small cave and tunnel that you had to crawl through half way up, very narrow steps cut out of huge boulders with a sheer drop on one end and sometimes a rope rail to hold on to but most of the time nothing but air. At the top there are more Inca ruins and a plaque and some great views of the citadel below. Marcela told me she came back down, crab crawling on her rear end, Tom made it down by descending backward as you would a ladder and they told me some people just plain panicked at the top and needed guidance. Most of all they reiterated how hard it actually was and that the view from the top almost makes it worthwhile. Tom, who is bothered by his knees and shoulder, told me he was done for the day but Marcela and Mariano game fully said they were good for a little more climbing stone steps. Leaving Tom at the same spot I had waited overlooking the citadel, we set off along the terraces towards the Temple of the Sun and Intiwatana. We marvel at the architecture, the buildings, the number of stone steps there is to climb. We go slowly. The sun is starting to sink over the mountains and the place takes on a more ethereal quality. Only a few people still remain and a quiet solitude passes over everything. We see little clusters of rabbits emerging from cracks and crevices. But not rabbits, they have a tail like a rodent. We found out later they are vizcacha and are actually related to the chinchilla family. And we watch a couple of Quechan men herd the llamas and alpacas into huts for the night. We had been here at sun rise and we were still here as it sets. I will never forget today or Machu Picchu. There are many places that do not live up to the “hype” but here is not one of those. With the sun lowering over the Andes and mist settling in for the night, with the light growing dim and casting long shadows over the buildings, this place is magical.

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